OMAHA, Neb. — Coming into the College World Series, La. baseball looked like the hottest brand going.
But Sunday night, it got trumped by L.A. baseball.
Trumped is too strong a word. Trumped implies trumpeted, as in big, brassy, grand gestures that lead to a dramatic outcome.
What UCLA did to LSU was much less obvious, far more insidious. The Bruins sliced and diced, nipped and nibbled, squeezed and clawed until all the blood was drained from the Tigers. At that point, they simply keeled over dead, with that same surprised look on their faces that Cal State Fullerton was wearing when UCLA swept the Titans in the super regional.
Final score: Vampires of Westwood 2, Duck Dynasty Darlings of Baton Rouge 1.
The differences between way these two teams play couldn’t have been more distinct.
After a few saber-rattling fly balls off Bruins starter Adam Plutko, LSU’s top power broker, Mason Katz, banged one off the wall in left.
That was the wall in the left field dugout behind the outfield wall. It was the first home run in overly spacious TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, where you could park a few 737s if nearby Eppley Airfield gets too crowded.
It was the first home run of this year’s CWS, giving plenty of ammunition to the crowd (myself included) that argues college baseball needs more offense and that college baseball’s new palace is too big.
The Bruins may be underpowered, their batting average ranked 253rd nationally coming in, but UCLA was undeterred. The Bruins answered in the sixth and eighth, manufacturing a pair of MacGyver-esque runs out of some infield dirt, a few twigs and a pair of AA batteries.
If the Tigers defeat was a death by a thousand cuts, it was LSU that handed the Bruins the knife.
The Tigers danced around a dangerous flame for five straight innings, allowing UCLA to get the leadoff man aboard from the fourth through the eighth, and again in the ninth for good measure.
They finally got burned. A leadoff single by pinch-hitter Ty Moore turned into a run after LSU freshman shortstop Alex Bregman booted a sharp but fairly routine grounder by Eric Filia, scoring pinch-runner Christoph Bono from second.
LSU errors led to both UCLA runs. The best defense in the CWS field let the Tigers down mightily, but in large part because the LSU offense couldn’t give All-American Aaron Nola a margin for error.
Nola hasn’t allowed an earned run since the Ford Administration. But it was still Nola who went to the dugout on the short end of a 2-1 score. Relentless UCLA pressure stepped up inning by inning until the Tigers’ hopes burst like a weak levee at flood stage.
LSU wanted to play big. UCLA wanted to play small. In a big ballpark, the Bruins’ style seems better suited to the setting.
If they played in TD Ameritrade Park Baton Rouge (Alex Box Stadium), the Tigers would have had a 3-0 led to start the game. Christian Ibarra absolutely mashed a Plutko offering in the second that would have been out of The Box, but it was just a long, loud out to left here. In the fourth, he stepped on another pitch from Plutko that traveled onto the warning track in left. It only served to end the inning, not extend the LSU lead.
Suddenly, what has to this point been LSU’s greatest season is on its last embers. In a topsy-turvy CWS (all the favorites lost this weekend) the Tigers must beat No. 1 national seed North Carolina to stay alive, then try to find enough pitching arms to win three more games to reach the championship series.
“We know what the rules are now,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “We’ve got to win four in a row.
“It’s very doable.”
It’s actually a tall order, almost impossible.
But then again, that’s what UCLA beating LSU seemed like before Sunday night, too.